Ballot counting wrapped up late Thursday in one of the most hotly contested union elections in years. Technical and service workers at Kaiser Permanente’s 331 California hospitals and clinics stuck with the Service Employees (SEIU) third-largest local, United Healthcare Workers-West, casting 18,290 votes for SEIU-UHW (61 percent), and 11,364 for challenger National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) (38 percent).
The vote concludes a months-long battle in Kaiser facilities across the state in what some are calling the most expensive union election in history. SEIU poured millions of dollars and hundreds of out-of-state staff into the effort to fend off NUHW, warning members that they were putting everything at risk if they chose to leave.
SEIU’s main message (besides calling NUHW leaders thieves) was that if workers chose NUHW, their contract would be up for renegotiation, so why rock the boat?
Kaiser eagerly played its part in SEIU’s fear campaign, illegally withholding raises for a group of Southern California professional workers who had already left SEIU for NUHW, targeting NUHW supporters for discipline or dismissal—sometimes with the active cooperation of SEIU officials—and routinely shutting down the few public spaces where NUHW supporters could campaign inside Kaiser.
While the voting procedures don’t allow for a facility-by-facility breakdown, it’s clear that where NUHW had strong worksite organization its member-to-member organizing was effective at countering the fears SEIU raised and in cutting through the blizzard of mailers and phone calls. Absent strong worksite networks, incumbency, money, and insecurity were an overpowering combination.
Because of Kaiser’s involvement—it is illegal for an employer to assist one union over another in such an election—NUHW supporters insist they could not get a fair vote, and have vowed to challenge the results in court. Activists are meeting over the weekend in Northern and Southern California to discuss next steps.
INTO THE FUTURE
SEIU’s strong showing at Kaiser pushes NUHW members’ quest to re-assemble their former local years into the future. It remains to be seen how rank-and-file NUHW supporters at Kaiser—now destined to remain within SEIU-UHW for the time being—will contend with SEIU-UHW going forward. One huge challenge will be Kaiser’s plan to demand mid-contract health care concessions, probably next spring. Up till now, NUHW supporters at Kaiser have either been removed from their steward and other positions by SEIU-UHW, or have resigned. Will they now decide to organize within the local, though its top-down structures and staff-driven nature weigh heavily against them? The international’s trusteeship over the local is slated to end in March 2011.
SEIU’s push to lower members’ expectations and stoke insecurity won the vote, but that platform won’t build a strong union. Nor will it beat back looming concessions. Because NUHW is the only union in the picture that’s talking about building rank-and-file power to deal with hostile employers, don’t count it out.